If you could name one iconic fruit of the fall, it would probably be that tart, crimson wonder, the cranberry.
No Thanksgiving dinner table is complete without SOME version of cranberry sauce (even if it’s a a slice of jellied goo that still bears the rib-marks of the can it came from), but the cranberry is healthy, hardy, versatile and can (and should) be enjoyed year-round.
The cranberry is indigenous to North America, and most historians agree that cranberries were part of the original Thanksgiving. While it’s an east coast cultivar, the climate and well-drained, sandy soil of coastal Washington and Oregon are hospitable to the plants, which were first propagated in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800’s.
Here in my corner of the woods, scarlet bogs are flooded from early September through late October, cranberry festivals abound, and, as it is with shellfish farmers and fishermen, most everyone knows SOMEONE in the cranberry “field.”
This is how I found myself, on a blessedly warm and sunny September morning, up to my (wader-clad) kneecaps in water, wielding a homemade wooden “sweep,” part of a seriously Rockewellian undertaking — a family cranberry harvest.
Dale and Margaret Staudenraus, parents of our good friend, Virginia, have owned their cranberry land since before Dale retired from the local Sheriff’s department. Now it’s a family operation, and everyone — in-laws, cousins, friends, grandchildren, bloggers — lends a hand during harvest time.
Dale, daughter Virginia, friend Ronnie, son Chris, setting the step elevator.
I arrived at 8:30 AM so we could be “in the water” by 9. The field we would be harvesting was already flooded with water pumped from ponds on the property. The berries had been beaten off the vines the day before and were bobbing on the bog’s surface.
Chris, ready to get in the water; father Dale with his morning coffee.
I was sheepish to be snapping pictures while others were gathering sweeps, assembling booms and setting the step-elevator, but Dale and son Chris, who lives in the house on the property, were both happy to talk to me about their family operation over donuts in the garage.
At first, the farm was a hobby — Dale needed a place he could come after a sometimes frustrating day of work where no one could get a hold of him (this being the day before cell-phones, of course). Since then, the family has expanded the farm to 15 acres, with 7 1/2 of that dedicated to cranberry bogs.
There are over a dozen varieties of cranberry, and the Staudenraus bogs are planted with McFarlins — an old, native Massachusetts variety that was one of the first cultivars in Washington state — and Stevens, a higher-yield hybrid.
While cranberries can be harvested dry (most dry-havest is what ends up as those bags of fruit you’re seeing in the stores right now), about 90% of the cranberries farmed in the U.S. are processed into juice, sauce, and sweetened dried (MY favorite brand is Willabay, of course!). For this, the wet harvest is the most efficient method.
After the bog is flooded and the berries are dislodged from their vines, the next few hours are spent corralling them with sweeps — large wooden “rakes” — and booms, towards an elevated conveyor, where they are dumped into bins that hold 1000 lbs. of fruit.
Chris, setting the elevator
Grandson Ethan and friend Calvin, choosing sweeps.
Deductions are taken for weeds and rot, so great care is taken to separate the “trash” from the fruit as it’s loaded into the conveyor.
Margaret feeds the conveyor with berries.
The kids scoop out weeds into the trash pile.
As soon as the day’s harvest is complete, the berries are trucked up the road to the local Ocean Spray plant (nearly all the local growers are part of the Ocean Spray cooperative), where the berries are weighed and cleaned. They are then shipped to another plant in Grayland, where they’re processed into juices and sauce.
Pulling the boom.
Cranberries being loaded into bins.
Making room for more berries.
Once the year’s harvest is finished (and the festive harvest dinner is over), the growers have about 3 months of rest before the cycle of farming resumes again. Pruning, weed control, irrigation, painting, and machine maintenance all lead up to the next fall’s harvest.
So this season, as you’re setting down to your turkey dinner, enjoying a cranberry spritzer, or twining together strings of berries for decoration, give thanks to the growers who are willing to take their morning walks in the water, rain or shine, to bring bounty to our holiday tables.
Fresh cranberries will keep for about a month in the refrigerator, and can be frozen until, well, next Thanksgiving. Take advantage of their abundance and enjoy them all year, in homemade juice (this is my favorite homemade cranberry juice, from Our Paleo Life), shrubs, sauces, baked goods, and, to kick off the spirit of the season, cocktails!
This libation, also known as “Linda’s Downfall,” can be prepared with store-bought cranberry juice, but do try it with homemade if you have the time.
Makes 2 cocktails
2 oz. Stolichnaya Vanilla Vodka
2 oz. fresh cranberry juice
1 oz. Limoncello
Cold soda water
Combine vodka, limoncello and cranberry juice in a cocktail shaker with ice; shake briskly until icy cold.
Pour into martini or coupe glasses; top with soda water and give it a stir. Garnish with a twist of lemon.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST CRANBERRY FESTIVALS and RESOURCES
Pacific Coast Cranberry Museum, Long Beach Peninsula
Long Beach Peninsula Cranberrian Fair – second week of October
Grayland Cranberry Harvest Festival – second weekend of October
Bandon Cranberry Festival – Second week of September